Friday After Ash Wednesday | Readings: Isaiah 58:1–9a; Matthew 9:14–15
Isaiah, purified after the great exile, defines fasting in a whole new and rather “secular” way. It is courageous that the church dares to use such a hard-hitting passage at the beginning of Lent, considering that the very same situation still applies today. Some scholars say that it was this kind of writing that got Isaiah killed. He accuses and condemns his fellow Jews for “afflicting themselves” and “bowing their heads” through ritual observances, fasting, and formal temple prayers, but largely missing the whole point of religion. This passage would not have been a big hit with the pious, the priestly class, or the temple conservatives of Isaiah’s day.
Isaiah says explicitly that God prefers another kind of fasting which changes our actual lifestyle and not just punishes our body. (The poor body is always the available scapegoat to avoid touching our purse, our calendar, or our prejudices.) Isaiah makes a very upfront demand for social justice, non-aggression, taking our feet off the necks of the oppressed, sharing our bread with the hungry, clothing the naked, letting go of our sense of entitlement, malicious speech, and sheltering the homeless. He says very clearly this is the real fast God wants!
It is amazing that we could ever miss the point. It is likely that what we later called the corporal works of mercy came from this passage. We can presume that Jesus was familiar with it because of his parallel sermon on the sheep and the goats.
The passage segues nicely into the short gospel on why Jesus and his disciples do not fast. In effect, he says “because it is the wrong kind of fasting!” Then he introduces a favorite theme and metaphor that he gradually develops: life as a wedding banquet, with himself as the bridegroom and humanity as the bride. It will soon become clear that Jesus is not interested in an elite who do their rituals properly yet refuse to join in the wedding
“Cry out full-throated and unsparingly, lift up your voices like a trumpet blast! Tell the people their actual wickedness, let the people know their real sins. . . . ‘Is this the kind of fasting I wish? Do you call this a fast day acceptable to God?’” –Isaiah 58:1, 5
“Why is it that while we and the Pharisees fast, your disciples do not?” –Matthew 9:14
“God, what is it that you want me to let go of this Lent? Is it other than what I think?”